John Richard 'Dick' Irwin, Sun 'police blotter' reporter, dies

John Richard "Dick" Irwin, a tough, accurate veteran police reporter with a heart of gold whose signature Police Blotter became required reading for both crime aficionados and the just plain curious, died Wednesday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center of complications from diabetes.

Mr. Irwin, whose career at the News-Post, News American, The Evening Sun and The Baltimore Sun spanned more than 40 years, was 76.

"He had the mutual respect of the police. He was an honest man, and he didn't like when people tried to fudge things with him. He believed that the police had to be as transparent as possible, and he was right," said Bill Toohey, former Baltimore County police spokesman.

"Dick was very refreshing and uplifting. He took himself, life and the public seriously. He was the most ethical reporter I've ever encountered," said Mr. Toohey, who also teaches media ethics at Towson University.

Peter Hermann, who began covering city police for The Sun in 1994, said that Mr. Irwin put the "human touch on crime."

"Dick was the finest police reporter I've ever known," he said. "He knew all the cops. He knew their families. And he got information out of them that no one else ever could."

"Dick Irwin was a terrific journalist who loved our craft and who was dedicated to making sure The Sun was the best that it could be each day. He was a valued colleague who trained and mentored dozens of reporters as they covered crime throughout this region," said Trif Alatzas, The Baltimore Sun's senior vice president and executive editor.

"He was also a true gentleman who always kept his word, whether it was working with colleagues or sources. His name often comes up in the newsroom as we're chasing a crime story and researching past events that Dick covered," said Mr. Alatzas.

He added: "There is sadness in our newsroom today as we remember one of Baltimore's finest crime reporters."

The son of a military officer and a homemaker, John Richard Irwin — he never used his first name — was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Pimlico neighborhood, where he delivered the News-Post as a youth.

Mr. Irwin landed his first newspaper job in 1955 as a copy boy working for the News-Post while he was still a student at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, where he was editor of the school newspaper. He graduated in 1956.

At the News-Post, he was promoted to reporter and was assigned to the police beat, where he worked until being laid off in 1958.

He then worked as a Baltimore police officer and then in advertising at the Sears regional headquarters in Baltimore. He later operated a gas station in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

In 1960, Mr. Irwin returned to Baltimore and went to work in Woodlawn at the Social Security Administration. Five years later, he returned to the city room of what was by then the News American.

At the suggestion of an editor in 1979, he began compiling the Police Blotter, calling all the police districts in the city and the surrounding counties seeking material, patiently and accurately recording all details of crimes.

"Dick often phoned in items when I was working rewrite at the News American. He was quick and never minded going back to a police spokesman to double-check something. He believed in accuracy," said Joe Nawrozki, who later became a Sun reporter.

"I always thought he reminded me of Joe Friday from 'Dragnet' — 'Just the facts, ma'am.' He was always dependable when it came to getting a story," said Mr. Nawrozki, who retired some years ago. "He had a passion for it."

When the News American folded in 1986, Mr. Irwin and the blotter traveled up Calvert Street to The Evening Sun. When that paper ceased publication in 1995, he transferred his allegiance and popular blotter to The Sun.

Mr. Irwin dressed like a detective and had something of a military bearing — he had been a Marine Corps Reservist. He also drove a large white Ford Crown Victoria, which gave him unchallenged access to crime scenes.

Mr. Irwin's workday at The Sun began punctually at 4 p.m. when he stepped into the city room, and it often extended into the wee hours of the next day, with a telephone glued to his ear most of the time.

While Mr. Irwin was the epitome of civility and kindness in the newsroom, he could be "gruff especially when the cops wouldn't give him information," recalled Mr. Hermann, who now covers crime for The Washington Post. "Nothing angered him more than that."

And when he finally went home, he continued making calls in order to update or gather fresher items that were newsworthy, before retiring when most people were getting up to go to work.

Mr. Irwin also kept careful records — his monthly homicide calendar recorded the name of a murder victim and other pertinent details, which he later filed. He was a walking encyclopedia of Baltimore crime cases and could recall minute details from cases that were decades old.

While most blotter items were of a serious nature and represented urban crime and mayhem, he also saw the comic side of life, such as the time he recorded a tomato robbery in the same fashion as he would a triple homicide:

"Someone entered the rear yard of a house in the 5900 block of Johnson St. on Saturday morning and removed a tomato from a tomato plant. The tomato was valued at $3, police said."

Another off-beat item was culled from a call to the North Point Precinct:

"Burglary/arrest: A woman reported someone had entered her apartment in the 200 block of Baltimore Ave. on Sunday night and stole a 13-inch television set that she would recognize because it was infested with roaches. Near the woman's home that night, police arrested a man in connection with the burglary and recovered the TV — which police confirmed had the insects."

The blotter was such a favorite with readers that on days it wasn't published, the newspaper was inundated with calls wondering where Mr. Irwin and his blotter were.

Linda Schubert, a former Sun metro content editor and copy editor, recalled laughing hysterically with Mr. Irwin as they watched the tomato police blotter item read on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

In The Sun's newsroom, Mr. Irwin was a charmer who brought a red rose for "his girls" — his favorites of the female metro staff — on their birthdays, she said.

"He told great stories and awful jokes that were very corny," Ms. Schubert said. "And you always slapped your head when he got to the punch line."

Former Baltimore police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III became acquainted with Mr. Irwin when Mr. Bealefeld was a sergeant in narcotics.

"You never knew when and where Dick would turn up. He was a constant fixture at crime scenes and engaged," Mr. Bealefeld said. "He was a great, great man of the old school, and you knew when you had a conversation with him, he'd handle it in the right way."

Mike James, a former Sun reporter and editor, recalled being sent with Mr. Irwin to Union Memorial Hospital in 1994 where indicted Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean had been taken after attempting suicide.

"The pressure was on from our editors to get something. I was getting nowhere, and Dick was talking sports and joking with the cops," said Mr. James, who is now national editor for breaking news at USA Today.

"Finally, I said to Dick that I had struck out and our editors were going to be furious. He said, 'Let's go,' and as we walked back to the car, he mumbled under his breath, 'I've got everything, including the suicide note,'" said Mr. James. "This shows that Dick was more than a blotter guy; he was a great reporter."

Mark Vernarelli, a former WMAR-TV reporter who is now a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, was a competitor for nearly 20 years.

"He was a legend. Dick was the consummate police reporter from the old school. He learned the trade long before computers, pager alert systems, and electronic media took over," said Mr. Vernarelli. "Back then, you had to know what to ask and you had to develop relationships and trust. You got the story right or you didn't go with it. He was always very thorough."

Mr. Irwin, a longtime Parkville resident, enjoyed hunting and traveling. He also enjoyed reading history and watching classic Hollywood films.

Viewings will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Johnson Funeral Home, 8521 Loch Raven Blvd. Services will be at the funeral home at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, the former Gwendolynn Engel; two sons, John W. Irwin of Bel Air and Richard C. Irwin of Edgewood; a brother, Edward Irwin of Clayton, N.C.; a sister, Shirley Fox of Sykesville; and five grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

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